Asia for Animals: China conference focuses on using laws creatively to protect animals


The 11th Asia for Animals (AfA) symposium, which has just taken place in Dalian, China, was focused on how laws can be used creatively to protect nonhuman animals. Delegates heard presentations from lawyers, academics, and activists from Asia, the United States, Australia, and Europe.

More than four hundred people attended AfA 2019. They ranged from people working on the ground in rescue and rehabilitation organisations to animal advocates, veterinarians, scientists, government officials, scholars, and those working in education.

The biennial event was this year co-organised by the Animals for Asia Coalition and the Vshine Animal Protection Association, based in Dalian.

Speakers from China emphasised that local regulations in the country are very effective, but said that the Wildlife Protection Act was about using animals as resources rather than protection and welfare, and needed further revision.

National anti-cruelty legislation is urgently needed, speakers said.

China’s wildlife protection legislation was revised in 2016 and now covers hunting, and selling wildlife items on the Internet. There are strong deterrent penalties and a new draft list of protected species, but the law allows commercial trade in protected wildlife and their products.

Previous to the new draft, China’s wildlife conservation list had only been updated once since it was released in 1989. In 2003, the authorities upgraded the protection status for musk deer.

Amanda Whitfort, who teaches Criminal Litigation and Animal Law at the University of Hong Kong’s Law Faculty, told AfA delegates about the use of public interest litigation in China in animal welfare cases. This, Whitfort says, has the capacity to impact very significantly on the way animal abuse is dealt with in China.

China’s public interest litigation framework is extremely advanced, Whitfort says, and it is growing and gaining strength.

“Since its formal adoption in 2012 Chinese environmental public interest litigation has gone beyond just recognition of individuals’ rights to sue for environmental harms and now it gives procuratorates the power to initiate actions against government officials for abuses of animals when they are combined with criminal prosecutions,” she told delegates.

In China, public interest litigation has been combined with criminal prosecutions to assist with addressing the selling of poisonous dog meat and the poaching and selling of endangered species.

A recent Supreme People’s Court interpretation has allowed individuals to be pursued under civil procedure law for harming the environment and compromising food and drug safety.

“Even more importantly, since 2017, amendments to the administrative litigation law have allowed for public interest litigation to be used to pursue administrators for misuse of their powers that has caused ecological harm,” Whitfort said.

Procuratorates in China can now not only challenge offenders who have sold endangered species or compromised food safety, Whitfort says. They can begin to challenge citizens or public authorities for the way that they regulate wild animals in captivity, deal with farm animals, use laboratory animals, and transport animals.

“Those challenges can be made when misuse of animals has either had ecological impact, has caused food security breaches, has compromised drug safety, or has damaged the social benefits of the masses.”

Now procuratorates take the lead as plaintiffs in public interest litigation in a way that is unique to China, Whitfort told delegates.

“Even in the US, the department of justice, which has similar enforcement powers, does not behave in this way. It acts more as a litigation counsel than as a plaintiff.”

Under the civil procedure law, the procuratorate can only initiate action against private persons if no other organisation wishes to take charge of the case. Procuratorates therefore have to notify NGOs of their intention to initiate action and the NGOs have to decide whether to take up the case themselves or allow the procuratorate to act as plaintiff, and support the procuratorate in that action.

Under the administrative procedure law, the procuratorates have a wider power. They initiate actions against government authorities that are responsible for environmental protection and the preservation of natural resources in China. It is this kind of litigation that is growing very quickly in China, Whitfort says. More than 90,000 cases were initiated in 2018.

Whitfort told delegates about the case of 21 people who were prosecuted earlier this year in the Jintan district for selling pangolins. The animals were being sold to a restaurant in the local district. The police seized seven live animals, 39 frozen carcasses, and a significant number of scales.

The case was broadcast live from the court.

Those convicted were ordered to make a public apology for the harm that they had caused to the pangolins, protected animals of China, and were ordered to pay a total of 880,000 renminbi (about US$ 124,300) in compensation for the loss of the animals.

“That represents a sum that is far beyond what is the accepted black-market value of that number of pangolins so it demonstrates a willingness of the courts to impose a much more deterrent sentence than previously has been permitted under a straightforward wildlife prosecution,” Whitfort said.

Whitfort also cited the case of the sale of a Siberian tiger for slaughter for its body parts. The tiger was transported live from a circus to a forest area in Guangdong province where it was killed by the sellers and buyers working together.

The tiger’s head was sold for 50,000 renminbi (RMB), the legs for 50,000 per kilo, the bones for 10,000 per kilo, and the meat for 400 per kilo.

The defence lawyer in the case argued that the tiger had lived all its life in a circus so killing the animal caused no damage to the local ecology and public interest did not apply. However, the court ruled that the sale and killing of a protected animal, regardless of its source, and its transport without the appropriate permits, were a violation of public interest.

Those convicted were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison and were ordered to pay a total of 500,000 RMB in compensation for the loss of the tiger. They were also required to make a public apology.

Siberian tiger. Photo courtesy of Tiger-World.

A third case involved a man who trapped a macaque illegally, injured its arm, amputated the arm, and tied the animal to a tree.

The macaque was rescued and taken to a wildlife centre and the court that heard the case also ruled that there was violation of public interest. The defendant was sentenced to 18 months in prison and was fined 2,000 RMB. He was also required to contribute 2,800 RMB towards the macaque’s ongoing preservation at the rescue centre.

Public interest litigation has also been used in two recent prosecutions brought against gangs of criminals involved in the poisoning of dogs for the dog-meat trade. The defendants were required to pay ten times the value of the poisoned meat in compensation for the harm that they had potentially caused to the public.

Whitfort’s current research project is focused on wildlife trafficking in Asia. Her university is collaborating with a local NGO in Hong Kong to see how they can assist judges hearing trafficking cases.

“China, and Hong Kong, as a part of China, are a wildlife trading hub,” Whitfort told delegates. China’s removal from the trade would fragment networks in 96.7 percent of ivory-smuggling cases and 100 percent of tiger- and rhino-smuggling cases, she says.

Aron White from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) told AfA attendees that the illegal wildlife trade is the world’s 4th largest illegal trade after drugs, human trafficking, and trade in counterfeits.

White said that globally more than 73 tonnes of illegally traded pangolin scales had already been seized this year. This would equal about 73,000 pangolins and would most likely be just the tip of the iceberg.

A Sunda pangolin baby clings to its mother’s tail. Photo © Thai Van Nguyen/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.

The leopard, White told delegates, is the most heavily traded big cat in Asia.  Since 2000, more than 5,300 individuals have been seized from illegal trade in Asia. “The scale of the international illegal trade is huge,” White said.

One of the presentations on the first day of AfA 2019 was by the founder of the Animals Asia Foundation, Jill Robinson.

At the end of her presentation, Robinson showed delegates a heart-rending video about the rescue in 2010 of a bear called Oliver, who lived happily in a sanctuary for four and a half years after being rescued from the illegal bear bile farm where he had been caged for thirty years. Oliver was already elderly when he was rescued, and he died in November 2014.

The video shows how a team of vets carried out hours of emergency surgery on Oliver during his 1,500-kilometre journey to the Chengdu Bear Rescue Centre. The vets got help from police and a supply of oxygen from a nearby hospital and local people crowded around as the vets removed Oliver’s diseased gall bladder and a metal component from an illegal catheter.

“It was as if a whole nation of people came together as guardian angels to help just one bear that needed major abdominal surgery,” Robinson said.

Robinson also told delegates about the rescue in 2016 of a one-year-old moon bear called Rainbow, which she says was a great example of collaboration between NGOs, government officials, and the general public.

Rainbow had been caught in a snare in Sichuan province and was rescued after a member of the public tipped off forestry officials.

“We got to the scene and our vet team managed to anesthetise this bear and take it out of the snare. We realised we had a very sick bear on our hands. She was very dehydrated. She’d obviously been in the snare for several days. She was extremely thin and we knew we had to get her back to our hospital very, very soon,” Robinson said.

“The worst thing of course was the paw that was very, very badly necrotic. By the time we got Rainbow back to our hospital, our vets realised that they only had one option to save her life by amputating the paw just below the elbow, which is what they had to do.”

Photo courtesy of Animals Asia.

Experts advised Animals Asia that Rainbow could be released back into the wild. While the bear was being taken back up into the mountains her GPS collar failed, but the Animals Asia team decided that time was of the essence (they didn’t want Rainbow to become too habituated to humans) so they went ahead with the release. They feared they would never see Rainbow again, but she was spotted a year later.

“Almost exactly a year later, we got a call from the Peng Zhou authorities saying that they had found a piece of film on their camera trap, which they sent us,” Robinson told delegates. “And there indeed was a three-legged bear, obviously Rainbow, hopping around in the forest very happily, and very healthy.”

Robinson also talked about the animal-assisted therapy programme, Dr Dog, that she created in Asia in 1991.

Registered therapy dogs are taken to hospitals, orphanages, schools, centres for the disabled, and homes for the elderly.

The programme gives people what they need at times of trouble, Robinson says: “when they’re sick, when they need a friend, when they need an animal that gives unconditional love”.

Scientific research across the world shows that being in the company of dogs can be good for our physical and psychological health, Robinson adds.

Photo courtesy of Animals Asia.

Animals Asia also runs a programme called Professor Paws. Dogs go into primary schools together with a volunteer and help children who have reading difficulties or wish to improve their language capabilities.

Research has shown that children are far less embarrassed reading to a dog than if they are reading to a teacher.

Robinson told delegates about a case last week in Chengdu. A teenager at one of the local universities was found to have tortured puppies and kittens to death. One dog was murdered in such a gruesome way that it caused outrage, not just in the university, but among the general public across the country.

The university reported the teenager to the police. Ten years ago, Robinson says, the teenager may not have been reported to the police and there may not have been as much outrage.

“The public is becoming more and more informed and people in authority are becoming more empowered to do the right thing for these animals, and to spread the word of the importance of treating animals kindly in our society.”

Robinson highlighted the fact that there are now more than two hundred groups in China working on animal welfare and conservation. She cited the example of the state forestry administration issuing a document banning the public from having any close contact with wild animals.

The National People’s Congress members also called for animal cruelty to be recognised under the criminal law, and the The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued guidelines on furthering zoo management by requiring city parks and zoos to stop animal performances.

Israel, Bolivia, Peru, Cyprus, Greece, and Singapore have all banned performances by wild animals, Robinson says.

Colleges and universities in China are becoming very influential and robust in animal conservation and animal protection, setting up wildlife conservation courses, Robinson told delegates.

“I don’t think there’s a university in the country here in China that doesn’t have a green group on campus.”

Another of the key speakers at AfA 2019 was the Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Grace Ge Gabriel.

Ge Gabriel spoke about the “tsunami of demand for ivory” that followed the decision in 2008 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to approve ivory trade to China and Japan.

CITES had banned the international ivory trade in 1989, but the ban was short-lived ivory trade to Japan was approved in 1999.

“The grey market where legal and illegal trade existed in parallel made ivory trafficking a high-profit, low-risk endeavour,” Ge Gabriel told AfA delegates.

From the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2012, more than 100,000 African elephants were slaughtered for the ivory trade, Ge Gabriel says. That is 15 elephants killed for the ivory trade every 15 minutes.

Ge Gabriel also talked about the killing of Tibetan antelope for fur to make shahtoosh shawls.  Clear, strong laws along the entire trade chain has helped the species, she says. “Tibetan antelope were killed in the ‘90s by the tens of thousands just simply for a little bit of fur under their neck to be woven into luxury shawls and then sold on the Western markets.”

Photo courtesy of the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Society.

IFAW worked with CITES and the Chinese government to protect the Tibetan antelope. It set up an anti-poaching network in the three nature reserves where Tibetan envelopes live and, in the Jammu and Kashmir region of India, where the shahtoosh shawls were woven, IFAW helped the government to ban the use of antelope wool.

After the ban, IFAW helped the 30,000 weavers to shift from weaving Tibetan antelope wool to using wool from a mountain goat whose fur can be sheared.

In Europe, IFAW worked with the metropolitan police in London and with Interpol to help law enforcers to identify shahtoosh and it ran a campaign to persuade consumers and fashion designers to reject shahtoosh “as a shroud rather than a shawl”.

Ge Gabriel also talked about IFAW’s success in getting large online marketing companies to ban wildlife trading on their platforms.

“China’s Alibaba and Taobao were the first companies in the world to ban the trade of parts and products from tigers, rhinos, pangolins, and bears, and shark fin and elephant ivory.”

In 2018, IFAW formed a coalition to end wildlife trafficking online. Thirty-four companies are now involved, Ge Gabriel says, and they include some of the biggest names in the technology world: eBay, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Microsoft, and China’s BAT: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

The coalition is collaborating with Interpol and other law enforcement agencies on a Global Wildlife Cybercrime Action Plan.

“In the plan, all these private sectors pledge to reduce online trade of endangered species by 80 percent by 2020,” Ge Gabriel said.

“In many parts of the world the zero tolerance policy by these internet companies has prompted governments to take stronger measures and put put that into their law. We have seen laws targeting wildlife cybercrime being introduced in countries like China, the Czech Republic, France, Portugal, Russia, and the United Kingdom.”

One of IFAW’s most successful campaigns was the “Mom, I Have Teeth” campaign. IFAW research in 2007 showed that 70 percent of Chinese people didn’t even know that ivory came from dead elephants so the campaign was launched to raise awareness. There has been a misconception among many of those buying elephant ivory that a tusk can fall out naturally in the same way as human teeth do.

The “Mom, I Have Teeth” ad so resonated with the public that it was adopted into China’s college entrance exam as a language test in 2011. It therefore reached nine million college applicants, Ge Gabriel says.

After four years the campaign had reached 75 percent of urban Chinese and reduce the number of those saying they would most likely purchase ivory from 54 percent of those questioned to 26 percent.

Ge Gabriel said, however: “We know that public awareness can erase ignorance but really to deter greed, we need stronger laws to make ivory trade illegal in all circumstances, combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties.”

She cites the success of administrative notices such as one issued by the state forestry administration that banned the auction of ivory. “It wasn’t even a law; it was an administrative notice banning the auction of elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger bone, and that resulted in a 40 percent drop in mainland China auctions in 2012.”

A later study showed that, in 2012, the number of ivory auctions in China fell by 90 percent.

The legislative landscape in China

Speakers from China grappled with numerous issues related to the legislative landscape in the country.

Deming Sun from the Ethics and Animal Welfare Committee of China’s International Council for Laboratory Animal Science said the adoption of a national standard for reviewing the ethics relating to the welfare of laboratory animals in 2018, after seven or eight years of discussion, constituted major progress.

Sun highlighted the detailed provisions in the new standard, which he says has been very well received by international experts.

The new standard is extremely comprehensive and covers not only the conditions in which animals are kept, animal transportation, euthanasia, and the source of the lab animals, but also such issues as lab staff qualifications.

It is aimed at minimising the use of animals in experiments, and the pain they endure in laboratories.

All users of laboratory animals have been required to conduct welfare and ethics reviews, but have previously applied differing and often lax standards.

According to RSPCA International, 20 million lab animals are bred in China every year.

Liang Zhiping (pictured left) from the China Research Institute said he looked forward to hearing about the implementation of the review.

During his presentation at AfA 2019 Liang posed the question: “In the absence of a comprehensive law on animal welfare how do we leverage the existing legal framework to achieve animal protection targets or at least to increase the level of animal protection in China?”

Why does China still not have a comprehensive animal welfare law despite all the efforts to obtain one? he asked.

In China, Liang says, there is a very unique political, legal, and social context and “human centrism” in the country has its own Chinese characteristics.

Liang highlighted a case that was tried in a court in Shenzhen in 2008. “This was a very high profile case in China and was listed as one of the Top Ten criminal cases of 2018,” Liang told delegates.

The district court heard that the defendant bred and sold endangered parrots. When police went to his home they found 45 endangered parrots that he had bred himself. In April 2017 the court sentenced him to five years in prison for selling a precious, endangered species and also fined him 3,000 RMB.

The defendant appealed and, in March 2018, the intermediate people’s court reduced the prison sentence to two years in prison along with a 3,000 RMB fine.

The judgement was below the criminal sentencing standard so went for review to the Supreme People’s Court and was upheld.

The way the defence lawyers and some other criminal law professionals have looked at the case is very typical of the general local Chinese legal ideology, Liang says. “I call it a legal unconsciousness and the way they look at this case, in my opinion, is a barrier to animal protection in China.”

Defence counsel had argued that the parrots had been bred in captivity so were not wildlife. They also said that without buying or selling there was no harming or killing and argued that wildlife should not be owned by the state, but by private people; that the market should be used to protect animals. They argued that private people would be motivated to protect their own property.

Liang dismissed this argument, telling delegates that “in human history, wildlife went extinct just because people were chasing after them for economic gain”.

People were incentivised by monetary gain, Liang said. “Of course private persons will protect their property, but logically, theoretically, and practically, this should not cover animal protection. Often the urge to protect property will lead to the harm and abuse of animals.”

The slaughter of kangaroos

Day 2 of AfA 2019 ended with a showing of “Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story“, a shocking investigative documentary about the massacre for food and leather of Australia’s iconic animal.

Kangaroos end up in pet food and their skins are turned into football boots. This movie shows, with no holds barred, the horrendous suffering inflicted on kangaroos, the brutality of commercial hunters, and the bravery of those who are fighting to bring an end to the slaughter.

The film took four years to make and includes stunning footage of kangaroos and the Australian outback.

Co-director Mick McIntyre told Changing Times: “Australia has been at war with its wildlife for the last two or three generations. It has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world.”

Animal Justice Party parliamentarian Mark Pearson told AfA delegates that the slaughter of kangaroos is the “largest slaughter of any terrestrial mammal in the world”. Between four million and five million kangaroos are killed every year.

Pearson said that 500,000 baby kangaroos, known as joeys, are killed every year. They are not killed by a shot to the head, he says. They are killed by being crushed by the hunter stamping on their head, or they are slammed against the back of a truck’s bull bar or the front of a truck.

The kangaroo is protected on several legislative levels in Australia, Pearson told delegates, but a commercial industry began to grow and this happened on the back of a perceived conflict between agribusiness or agriculture and the wild animal.

“On one side, the kangaroo is a protected wild animal and then when agribusiness interests come in, the kangaroo becomes a menace, a pest … when it comes into conflict with agribusiness, the government steps in and weakens the legislation or amends it or gives certain exemptions so that kangaroos can be slaughtered.”

There are regulations governing the killing of kangaroos, but, Pearson says, the slaughter is carried out in the bush at night, up to a thousand kilometres away from a town. The slaughtered kangaroos are put on the back of a truck.

“The first kangaroo may be on the back of that truck, with its cavity open to the heat up to 35, 30, or 40 degrees Celsius in the worst time of summer. And it’s on that truck moving around with dust coming in for up to 12 to 14 hours before it’s put into a chiller.”

Pearson organised testing of kangaroo carcasses and high levels of contamination from E. coli and salmonella were found.

The parliamentarian travelled to Russia and to China to tell officials about the way kangaroos are being slaughtered and the health risks to the public. Russia, which, until 2008, was the biggest importer of kangaroo meat for human consumption in the world, has now banned those imports.

The Russian authorities did their own tests on kangaroo meat and found high levels of E. coli and salmonella, faeces, antibiotic spray, and rotting meat.

In 2007, Russia banned 70 percent of its imports of kangaroo meat and, in 2008, it banned all the imports.

Pearson went to China in 2009 and again in 2015. The Australian government had previously sent a delegation there to try and get the country to open up to imports of kangaroo meat.

When Russia implemented its ban, the kangaroo meat trade almost collapsed, Pearson said,

Europe is now the biggest importer of kangaroo meat, but the authorities there are examining whether there should also be a ban there.

“The industry can only get kangaroo meat into Europe and get anywhere near it being acceptable in terms of hygiene by spraying it with acid,” Pearson said.

AfA delegates voted unanimously to support a resolution proposed by Pearson, which states the following:

  • that the Asia for Animals 2019 symposium condemns the treatment of Australia’s international icon and totem of first indigenous peoples, the kangaroo;
  • that the symposium commends China for declining to import kangaroo meat, especially after pressure from the Australian government and the kangaroo-killing industry;
  • that the resolution commends Russia for maintaining its ban on imports since 2008, and encourages Europe to implement a cessation of imports as well; and
  • that the symposium calls upon the Australian government “to strengthen legislation ceasing all cruel and brutal treatment of kangaroos, including the slaughter of these animals, being the largest slaughter of terrestrial mammals on Earth”.

Pearson will present a motion before the New South Wales parliament. His colleagues in the federal parliament and other state assemblies will also present the motion, which will urge parliaments to commend the resolution from the AfA conference.

If the motion is opposed, parliamentarians will be able to call for a debate about the slaughter of kangaroos.

At the end of AfA 2019, an award was presented to the president of WellBeing International, Andrew Rowan, for the work he has done in animal protection.

Andrew Rowan (centre) with the founder of Vshine, Hongmei Yu (left) and senior policy adviser at the Humane Society of the United States Bernie Unti.

Rowan told Changing Times that there should be a ban on the consumption of wildlife: “There are too few wild animals. We are consuming terrestrial animals and marine mammals – either through pollution, through other human activity, through ship strikes – at a rate that’s just unsustainable.

“We’ve got to figure out how to sustain ourselves, or how to how to feed ourselves sustainably, without  killing all the ecosystems in the world. That’s a huge challenge.

“We’ll have to start thinking of wildlife as something to be sustained, nurtured, and protected.”

Rowan cites the example of a forest in Puerto Rico where there has been a 98 percent decline in insect biomass on the floor of the forest.

“I remember, as a boy driving through South Africa, you’d have to wipe off the radiator grill after you’d gone 200 or 300 miles. You don’t do that anymore.”

Rowan also argues that zoos should join NGO advocacy groups and become really active campaigners on behalf of wildlife.

“They could be a huge positive force in the world. Animal NGOs are missing a huge opportunity by regarding zoos as our enemies rather than by regarding zoos as potential colleagues and fellow activists, fellow advocates.”

Rowan cites Melbourne zoo, which is running campaigns to end the use of balloons and to encourage people to keep their cats indoors, as example of zoo advocacy.

“Zoos in China would have a huge opportunity to address the plastics issue. Chinese rivers pour plastics into the Pacific Ocean. They’re one of the major sources of ocean plastic.”

WellBeing International is collaborating with the London-based Margaret Pyke Trust on its Thriving Together campaign aimed at eliminating unintended pregnancies to benefit people and wildlife conservation.

“If we could eliminate unintended pregnancies in the world, instead of the world population peaking at 11 billion, it would peak at 8.8 billion, and, by 2100, it would be back to where it is today. So you’re talking about three and a half billion less people; less consumption.”

An AfA award was also presented to the founder and honorary director of the Beijing Capital Animal Welfare Association,  Xiaona Qin.

More conference coverage to follow in Part 2: animals in captivity, the Model Welfare Act, legal dilemmas relating to animal welfare and religious freedom, the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty, the shooting of pet animals by police in the United States, combatting the trade in donkey skins, protecting orangutans in Indonesia, animal protection activism in Singapore, and more about the legislative situation in China.


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